Changes in gait in children due to obesity
Normal or healthy weight children with healthy feet and legs typically develop healthy feet and a normal gait. However, as children gain weight and become obese, they tend to slow their gait and develop asymmetry in their stride as they naturally change the way they walk in order to comfortably carry their body weight. This also tends to lead to a wider stance while walking and a tendency to become slow and hesitant. The more the gait slows, the more instability increases, causing even more slowing in an attempt to retain balance. In addition to developing a slower, unsteady gait, obese children also may develop flatter feet with a tendency to abduct, or turn the feet out, throughout the entire stride. All of these issues together create a less flexible foot adding further to gait instability and discomfort.
The gait changes seen in children due to obesity are similar to what happens in adults with significant foot and ankle problems related to obesity, peripheral neuropathy, peripheral vascular disease (PVD), and more. While most children may not suffer from neuropathy or PVD, not addressing obesity or related health problems could add to the risk of developing such complications later in life.
Childhood obesity and fitness
As children develop more and more obesity-related foot complications, their physical fitness begins to decrease proportionately. Just as one-third of all children are overweight or obese, a third of these children also experience lower extremity and foot pain due to their weight. Pain in the feet, ankles, or knees makes physical activity uncomfortable or painful, reducing a child’s likelihood to voluntarily participate in athletic of fitness activities. As weight increases, resulting in more foot and leg discomfort and pain, not only does physical fitness begin to suffer, but so does overall quality of life. It is hard to enjoy life when one can’t participate fully due to physical discomfort. Add in social issues related to childhood obesity and the entire situation becomes compounded. Psychosocial health and fitness scores both suffer. Long-term, childhood obesity may also lead to diabetes and related complications such as peripheral neuropathy or skin breakdown, as well as cardiovascular effects including peripheral vascular disease.
Treating obesity-related foot and leg pain in children
Addressing childhood obesity early may help not only reduce obesity and bring the child back to a normal, or healthy, weight, but it may also increase physical health as well as psychosocial health. Of course, one of the most important treatments for childhood obesity and related foot and leg pain is exercise, although for some children, additional intervention may be needed. With school physical education classes being cut further and further, it is important to incorporate fitness into your lifestyle at home. Encourage your child to take regular walks, and go with them. A walk is a great time to bond with your child and talk about their day. If your child doesn’t enjoy going for walks, look for ways to make it fun. Try a nature scavenger hunt and look for different types of leaves, plants, flowers, or bugs along the way. Play follow-the-leader as you walk, race to the corner or the next tree, and explore new places.
If your child has discomfort or difficulty enjoying the walk, take some time to find out why and look for ways to make the activity more enjoyable. Take breaks on occasion so your child can catch his or her breath. Bring water, and if your child doesn’t enjoy plain water, consider adding lemon, berries, cucumber, or mint to add natural flavor. In addition, consider a healthy, easy-to-carry snack such as a banana, apple, carrot sticks, or celery sticks.
Develop a team approach to childhood obesity and related foot and leg problems
For children having pain and other symptoms related to obesity, it may help to develop a team approach in addressing the related issues. Parents, the child’s pediatrician, and a podiatrist may work well together to help the child with developing healthier habits and improve foot and ankle function. A podiatrist may help to monitor your child’s feet, ankles, and legs to help avoid injuries and monitor for possible signs of diabetes development. In addition, your child’s podiatrist may help monitor foot, ankle, knee, and hip joint issues, correcting gait asymmetries and helping to prevent biomechanical changes.